It happens every time I’m on a steampunk panel at a non-steampunk convention. “When did steampunk start?” There are so many possible answers. The day Gibson and Sterling wrote The Difference Engine? The moment the sub-subgenre got its name from K. W. Jeter’s famous letter to Locus? The day Morlock Night was released? Or Wild Wild West? Or The War of the Worlds broadcast? Or the publication of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea? It’s almost impossible to answer that question, but there is one that’s much easier: When did the Future die?
That would be May 22nd, 1998: the day the new Tomorrowland opened at Disneyland.
The future has always been a tricky thing. In the book Yesterday’s Tomorrows, Joseph J. Corn and Brian Horrigan look at portrayals of the future from various points in the last century. They break it into categories—The Community of Tomorrow, The Home of Tomorrow, The Transportation of Tomorrow—all with dozens of colorful and amusing images from popular magazines, photos from World Fairs and the like, from the late 1890s through to the mid-1980s. These were remarkable images (and it’s a book every self-respecting Retro-Futurist should own) and they show the dedication and sway that futurism held over the average folk. The ones that were particularly interesting were the advertisements, such as an ad for Westinghouse Home Appliances that showed paintings of machines that were not yet available (and some that would never be available) hanging in an art gallery. This was a company advertising their current wares by saying “Someday, all this could be yours!” while not offering any of them at the time. A bold strategy, indeed.
The greatest advertisement in the history of mankind is Disneyland. It’s one of the few ads that you can convince people to pay good money to experience. Walt Disney put together Disneyland as a dreamland, a place where families and especially children could come together and experience a world of pure imagination. This was also a brilliant marketing move, as Walt always planned several years in the future, looking far beyond the latest grosses to the money that could be made off kids as they grew up soaked in his products. Disney was always coming up with cartoons for the young‘uns, live action movies geared towards teens, and even some features for the adults who had first come to Disney when they were kids. At the outset, there were few actual tie-ins to Disney’s films at Disneyland, though they grew over time as Walt and co. came to understand how physically experiencing his films could affect the visitor. Television had helped build Disneyland through the program Disneyland, a long-form advert for a product that was not yet finished when it began. Disneyland, the advertising concept, was being pushed by Disneyland, the television ad. It was all very meta.
That form of advertising wasn’t new—television was still largely long-form ads from companies masquerading as sitcoms and dramas—but Disneyland became attached to the concept of a place, Disneyland. That place would evolve into a living, breathing ad for all of Disney’s products. People come to Disneyland to be a part of the stories, which are ultimately designed to keep them attached to the Disney brand. This was what allowed Disneyland to seep into the cracks and become the defining location of America. An inauthentic America built at three-eighths scale.
The 1980s were the peak for the future. We had been through the first two stages of the microcomputer revolution, and it was no longer odd to find people with computers in their homes. Television, a truly miraculous device just thirty years prior, was now so commonplace that many families had two of them, and they were increasingly attached to cables that allowed signals to arrive from around the country. Portable phones, cars with digital displays, and clothing that changed color while you were wearing it were all available, and all seemed to be hinting at what the future would be. Sadly, that future always seemed to get rearranged just as it started to come into focus. The films of the 1980s were highly involved with the future, even when they weren’t about the future. There was futuristic set design and props. It all seemed to be pointing to a tomorrow that was no further than the end of the Reagan administration, when AI would be good, robots would do our chores, and a low-fat pudding would appear that didn’t let you down in the flavor department.
And none of it happened, of course. We hadn’t really learned from the past, when all the predictions and hopes were dashed, though people kept on smiling and thinking that all the things they’d dreamed of were just around the corner.
This time, we noticed.
You see, in the 1930s and '40s, it was okay if we didn’t have our flying cars or meals in pill form, because innovations in areas we understood were just as impressive. Who could complain about still having to shave themselves instead of having their robot valet do it when the electric razor was now available? No portable death ray? That’s fine, we’ve got computers that can figure out pi to a million places, and they only take up rooms the size of Independence Hall. There were so many areas that we were progressing in that actually changed our day-to-day lives that it didn’t matter that so many promises made by ads like that one from Westinghouse were never fulfilled.
This abruptly ended in the 1980s.
We had seen the mountain, and on a clear day people like Stewart Brand or Ted Nelson may have even glimpsed the mountain’s top like Mallory on his fateful climb. The future had started to gel: it had a shape like a television attached to a breadbox. The computer had determined our future, and now we realized that there were problems. Many saw that we were no longer in control; that we were at the mercy of the machines, and becoming more and more dependant on them in our everyday lives. As the '80s became the 1990s, we saw the computer invade our home. With the increased popularity of the internet in the mid-1990s, the entire world changed and it was clear that we were now slaves to information. The future was not an open field that scientists would be populating with finned rockets and hurricane-proof houses. Now, the future looked the same as the present, only the information slapped you in the face a little faster than the day before.
The personal computer put a bullet in the future, but Disneyland presided over the burial.
At the beginning, Walt said that the future was a significant part of Disneyland’s concept. The plaque at the entrance has always read, “Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy.” On opening day, across the signal of ABC television, Walt himself said:
"To all who come to this happy place, welcome. Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past...and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future…”
The future and what it meant to kids was a significant part of the story, and Tomorrowland was where it was going to live. Tomorrowland was initially mostly open space with massive amounts of corporate sponsorship, which seems an accurate portrayal of a future that did arrive. One of the biggest deals was the Monsanto House of the Future. This house was a symbol of what Disney had in mind: an impressive peek at what the future held for the young, and a great place to sell some sponsorship space. This park was a very 1950s image of the future, and in 1966, it was reimagined, changed to a frighteningly 1960s view of the future; a view that would stick around through 1996, when the area obviously needed a makeover.
The problem was that Tomorrowland had become dated fast, and the mishmash of styles was apparent when you saw pieces that were added after 1966. Space Mountain, for example, was pure 1970s, a look that fit in perfectly with The Black Hole, the flawed science fiction film geared towards adults but with truly moronic stuff going on for the kids. Any new design needed to be able to handle the existing architecture, but also not go obsolete for as long as possible. As the future had already had a great deal of its shine wear off, the idea was kicked around that perhaps a retro-futurist concept might make it easier to stay relevant.
Steampunk was gaining attention in the mid-to-late 1990s, and 1998 was the year that Disneyland broke through and gave the first strong taste of it to the public. The Astro Orbitor, the re-designed Rocket Jets that had been in operation for more than thirty years, was made into something resembling an orrery painted to remind visitors of brass, glass, and leather. The paint scheme was gold, brown, orange. It was no longer the future that you walked through. It wasn’t exactly the past either. To paraphrase Emmett Davenport of The Clockwork Cabaret, it took the best of the future and the best of the past and somehow ended up with something not quite as good as either.
Disneyland was no longer about the future, the real future it had heralded in experiences like Adventure Thru Inner Space, Rocket to the Moon, or Hall of Chemistry. It was about a fantasy future where somehow it would seem logical to use a sliderule to calculate how much aether you’d need to get to Mars. They introduced Innoventions, a rotating stage show about what inventions might make our lives easier in the not-so-distant future. But that bone thrown to the Hard SF crowd was merely a way to use up left-over characters from America Sings and Splash Mountain. While Tomorrowland had once been about space exploration, the kinds of homes we’d keep thirty years in the future, and better living through well-funded chemistry, this new Tomorrowland was, at best, all about what would happen Next Friday A.D. At worst, it was a rejection of the notion that our future would matter at all. We were allowed to wallow in an image of a past that had never really happened and pretend it was a magical future waiting to happen.
You don’t see a lot of talk about what the future will be like anymore. Certainly not like you did in the '50s, '60s, and '70s. Yes, science fiction will always have a strong vein of it, but just go back and watch the talk shows of the old days. Futurists would show up and talk about What Would Be. Asimov was everywhere telling us what to expect. That’s almost all gone now, driven out of the mainstream and into podcasts and net-shows focused like a laser on the hope that it will once again matter to Joe Six-Pack. Fantasy and historical reimagination are as popular as ever right now. We are living in a time when we know what the future will actually be, and that, more than anything, has helped make Steampunk into a phenomena. We know the House of Tomorrow will look exactly like the House of Today. More crowded, perhaps; more expensive, certainly, but no different to the naked eye. We want to wrest control over our lives back from those machines with the blinkenlights, or at least be able to watch the work those magical boxes do. The Babbage Engines are amazingly popular with visitors to both the Science Museum in London and the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA, partly because they show that there is another way, that we might be able to take our present and change it into something mechanical, controllable, shiny. The modders who give rosewood and brass cases to their PCs want a new form; if they’re going to be chained to the InfoWall, they may as well make it as pretty as possible.
Costumers, cosplayers, even us writer-types are all playing our parts in denying the future that now seems to be 100% preordained. We’re building our worlds so we can nestle inside of one of them and escape our everyday tribulations. This helps us cope with the Long March, and maybe it’ll even eventually give us a way out. Tomorrowland has shown us that you can turn your back on the future, and maybe that’s just what we’ll do.
Chris Garcia is a filmmaker, computer historian, and Hugo-nominated fan writer. He is co-editor of The Drink Tank (with James Bacon), Exhibition Hall (with James Bacon and Ariane Wolfe), and Journey Planet (with James Bacon and Claire Brialey), all available at eFanzines.com, and the upcoming film journal, Klaus at Gunpoint. He Twitters as Johnnyeponymous.
Tomorrowland and Astro Orbiter images courtesy of Wikipedia